Bethany Men’s Soccer Team Celebrates 20th Anniversary of NCAA D-III Championship

BY: CODY McELHANEY

 

BETHANY, W.Va. – Twenty years have gone by since the 1994 Bethany College Men’s Soccer team played their final game together.  This was the year that Bethany College won the NCAA Division III National Championship despite a great deal of adversity the team faced during the course of the season.

The Bison were forced to make multiple changes throughout the entire season.  Coach John Cunningham was tasked with removing players from the roster throughout the season. The team was also stricken with multiple injuries that caused Coach Cunningham to change his starting roster each week.   

The Bison started the 1994 season very slow losing three matches early in the season to Montclair State, Messiah, and Hiram College, which were very good teams. This was when Coach Cunningham knew he had to make some changes.  After a series of adjustments were made, the Bison were able to emerge victorious against Ohio Wesleyan, and the Kenyon College team that was expected to win the National Championship that year.

When asked how he evaluated his players to make adjustments each week, Cunningham said “After each loss, I would look at all of the tape and break down each play; why we were scored on and what we needed to do to fix this.  I would bring the players to my place for a team meeting to discuss everything that we needed to change in order to be successful.

It took the Bison a few games to get their offense running. “Eric Fries was a forward that wasn’t scoring so we needed to make some changes. Our defenders were very slow, they were good but they were not extremely fast.  So after looking at the tape we decided to play a unique formation. We played a 3-2-3-2.  I asked Fries to move from a striker back to a defender and from this point we never lost because he was very tough, very skilled, and very mean.

Making formational and tactical changes like this proved to be very beneficial because of the unique skill sets that the players possessed. This would ultimately increase the overall chemistry of the team.  Cunningham had said that chemistry was one of the biggest problems that the Bison faced throughout the season.    

The Bison were also dealing with a few injuries to key players leading up to the start of the NCAA National Championship.  Defender, Frankie Tall was injured in a game against The College of Wooster, which forced Coach Cunningham to bring in backup defender, Aaron Squire. 

Cunningham said, “By fate, this would prove to be a great move for our team.  Aaron was very athletic and played very simple.  He worked extremely well with the rest of the defenders that he was thrown into the mix with. From that point on, the defense, and especially senior goalkeeper, Malleh Sallah, said that this was going to be it and that it would be their year.

The Bison went on to finish the season strong and did not lose another game. The Bison ended the regular season with a record of 12-5-1 with the only tie of the season against West Virginia Wesleyan.  Wesleyan would go on to win the Division II National Championship that same year.  Bethany was already looking forward to being in the National Tournament because they felt that they were unfairly left out of the tournament the previous year.  If Bethany had ended up losing to West Virginia Wesleyan, they would have missed the cut for the 1994 NCAA Tournament.  Thirty-two teams were selected that year for the NCAA Tournament and the Bison were the last team picked.

When asked about his reaction when the Bison were selected for the tournament, Coach Cunningham said “I believe that we were picked because the committee who decided the participants knew of how well we played, they knew of the teams that we had beaten, and they knew about the strength of our schedule.  Plus, I think that they kind of owed us a bid from the previous year.”

During the first round of the NCAA South Region Tournament the Bison were matched up against UNC-Greensboro.  Greensboro was a familiar team to the Bison because of previous matchups.  The Bison started the game with a 1-0 lead heading into halftime but were clearly struggling.  During the 44th minute of the first half defender Larry Nole received a red-card. This would force the Bison to play the rest of the game with ten men.   As the Bison headed into the locker room for half time, defender Eric Fries wrote in large letters on the board, “WE WIN” meaning that no matter what happens throughout the rest of the game, the Bison emerge victorious.  Bethany would go on to win this game 4-3 in penalty kicks after finishing the first ninety minutes of the game tied 2-2.

The next game the Bison were matched up against Virginia Wesleyan, a much more formidable opponent compared to UNC-Greensboro, in the NCAA South Region Tournament.  The Bison would go on to win this game by a final score of 1-0 in overtime.  This was not the first time that Bethany had won the NCAA South Region Tournament.

As a result of the Bison emerging victorious from the South Region, they were awarded the luxury of hosting the quarterfinal game of the NCAA Tournament against U.C. San Diego. This game was taken into overtime and was once again settled by penalty kicks.  The Bison were winning 2-1 late into the game until a goal was scored by U.C. San Diego on a long throw-in with one minute left.  After this there were no games scored in the overtime periods and the Bison advanced to the National Semifinals behind the amazing goalkeeping of their All-American goalie, Malleh Sallah. 

When asked which game was considered to be the most favorite memory of the entire National Championship run, Coach Cunningham stated, “The game against U.C. San Diego was definitely the most memorable.  Mainly because of how well the team, they were the defending national champions, and how dramatic everything was.  I feel that because the game was held at Bethany, it was almost a distraction for us.  The field was filled with fans, everybody was there, and everybody was screaming and yelling.  This put a lot of pressure on our players not only during the game but in the days leading up to the game.  I would almost like to play games like that away from home that way the players would not have to deal with distractions like that.  I believe that the home game was more difficult than the away games purely from that standpoint.

Once defeating U.C. San Diego, the Bison were headed to the National Semifinals against the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.  This game would turn out to be the third out five games that went to penalty kicks during the team’s championship run.  The Bison finished the game 0-0 and would again emerge victorious from the phenomenal goalkeeping of Malleh Sallah.  Coach Cunningham and the rest of the Bison players would say “Malleh’s in the zone!”  This is what would get the players fired up and is what helped Sallah to play so well during this particular penalty shootout.  Sallah had told the team “This is our year and we are going to win this thing.” From that point on, Sallah was optimistic about winning and had a certain belief amongst him that let the players know that they could win.

During the team’s preparation for the National Championship game against John Hopkins University, the players exceeded Coach Cunningham’s expectations because of the high level of intensity and focus.

Malleh Sallah had played spectacular for the entire game. Sallah made one acrobatic save after another.  The Bison fought extremely hard and played exceptionally well to hold off the Johns Hopkins attack and eventually scored in the second half with 12:59 remaining on the clock. As the time had run out, Bethany held on to defeat Johns Hopkins by the score of 1-0 to claim the NCAA Men’s Soccer Division III Championship.

Cunningham added, “I thought for sure that there were a few times when Johns Hopkins was going to score and out of nowhere, Sallah would make an amazing save.  Sallah was making amazing save after amazing save, and our defense was playing the best that they had all season. The funny thing is, I’m a very superstitious person and I absolutely hate the number 13.  I saw that we had scored at 12:59 remaining in the game and right then I knew that we were going to win.

When Cunningham was asked about his feelings after winning the National Championship, Coach Cunningham said, “It felt great to win a National Championship, but the very first thing that I felt whenever we won was a sense of relief.  I felt a sense of relief because we had been in the National Championship in 1982 and lost to UNC-Greensboro. I felt a sense of relief because of everything that we had to overcome that year and we had still accomplished everything.  The second feeling that I felt was a tremendous sense of pride.  Bethany College was the smallest school in the entire country to win a National Championship and this brought me as well as the rest of the team a great sense of Bethany pride that is extremely hard to describe.

Saturday, October 11, 2014 the members of the 1994 National Championship team were in attendance to watch the Bethany Men’s Soccer team host Grove City for homecoming.  Most of the men from the team had come back in May 2014 to celebrate during the Bethany Alumni Soccer Association, (B.A.S.A.) weekend. During halftime of the game a ceremony was held to recognize the accomplishment of the 1994 team.  Each member was presented with a memorial plaque that recognized the twenty year anniversary of the National Championship. 

Even today, these great men still recognize the “We Win” attitude and have set a high standard of excellence for the Bethany College soccer program.  Bethany College has recognized these players by inducting every member of the 1994 team into the Bethany College Hall of Fame in 2004. 

 

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